The film was the second in an unofficial trilogy made by the same director and producer and starring Robert Taylor, coming between Ivanhoe (1952) and The Adventures of Quentin Durward (1955). All three were made at MGM's British studios at Borehamwood, near London and partly filmed on location. The cast included Robert Taylor as Sir Lancelot, Ava Gardner as Queen Guinevere, Mel Ferrer as King Arthur, Anne Crawford as Morgan Le Fay, Stanley Baker as Modred and Felix Aylmer as Merlin. The film uses the Welsh spelling for Arthur's nemesis, Modred, rather than the more common Mordred.
With the land in anarchy, warring overlords, Arthur Pendragon (Mel Ferrer) and his half-sister Morgan LeFay (Anne Crawford) meet as arranged by the sorcerer Merlin (Felix Aylmer) to discuss how to end the bloodshed. Morgan maintains that as she is the only legitimate offspring of the late king, the throne belongs to her, but Merlin puts the adversaries to a test to determine England's rightful ruler. Merlin leads them to Excalibur, a sword embedded in an anvil, and says that according to legend, whoever can remove the sword shall be England's true sovereign. Morgan's knight champion Modred (Stanley Baker) tries in vain to extract the sword, but Arthur removes it easily. Modred accuses Merlin of witchcraft, and a hearing is arranged with the Council of Kings at the circle of the stone. After advising Arthur that he must prove himself worthy of the throne by his deeds, Merlin instructs him to return the sword to the stone.
Meanwhile, the French knight Lancelot (Robert Taylor) and his men ride toward the circle of stone, hoping to offer their services to Arthur. On the road, Lancelot encounters a young woman named Elaine (Maureen Swanson), who quickly falls in love with him. They are waylaid by Modred's men, and Lancelot bravely does battle with all of them. Arthur arrives and joins in the battle. Lancelot, claiming he needed no help, challenges Arthur, unaware of his identity. After a long, exhausting fight, Lancelot finally asks his opponent's name, and when he learns that it is Arthur, he breaks his sword against a tree and kneels before him. They are joined by Elaine's brother Percival (Gabriel Woolf), who asks to be Arthur's knight errant.
Later, at the circle of stone, Arthur and Modred debate before the Council of Kings. When the crowd turns against Arthur and Lancelot, they are forced to flee, vowing to take the kingdom on the battlefield. Arthur and his men lie low throughout the cruel winter, then launch their attack against Modred's men in the spring. Despite being greatly outnumbered, Arthur's men win and he is crowned the King of England. In the interest of peace, Arthur immediately pardons all his former enemies, but when Lancelot objects to Modred's pardon, the two men angrily part ways.
Following the battle, Lancelot discovers that the lovely Guinevere (Ava Gardner) has been kidnapped and rescues her, unaware that she is Arthur's fiancee. Following Arthur and Guinevere's wedding, the king's joy is complete when Lancelot arrives at Camelot and pledges his allegiance anew. Arthur swears to join the select group of knights at the Round Table and England enjoys a period of peace and prosperity. One day, Percival brings Elaine to court and asks Guinevere to make her a lady-in-waiting.
Meanwhile, Morgan and Modred continue to harbor ill feelings against Arthur, and note with interest the growing warmth between Lancelot and Guinevere. Merlin privately warns Guinevere that Modred will attempt to show her suspicion and love of Lancelot. Because of this, Guinevere tells Lancelot she knows of his secret love for her and urges him to marry Elaine. Lancelot proposes to Elaine and asks Arthur to let him go to fight the Picts on the Scottish borders.
One night, Lancelot and Elaine are visited by Percival, who relates how a heavenly vision instructed him to go on a quest for the Holy Grail, the cup from which Christ drank at the Last Supper.
Modred calls a meeting of Arthur's enemies in Scotland and urges them to make peace so that Lancelot will be forced to return to Camelot, where he will eventually be exposed as Guinevere's lover. Word of peace reaches Arthur at Camelot at the same time that Lancelot's infant son Galahad, whose mother, Elaine, died in childbirth, is brought to court with instructions that he be sent to Lancelot's father. Sensing a plot, Merlin argues against bringing Lancelot back to Camelot, but Morgan poisons him, and the knight returns amid great fanfare.
Late one night, jealous after seeing Lancelot kiss another woman (Lady Vivien), Guinevere goes to his rooms, unaware that is being spied on by Morgan and Modred. Lancelot angrily denounces Guinevere's folly in coming to him, and Modred's men soon arrive to arrest them for high treason. Lancelot fights them off and flees with Guinevere.
Lancelot and Guinevere are tried in absentia at the Round Table and declared guilty. Lancelot suddenly walks in and surrenders, and when he confesses his chaste love for Guinevere, Arthur revokes their death sentence. Over Modred's protest, Arthur orders that Guinevere be confined and banishes Lancelot from England.
Outraged at this show of mercy, Modred succeeds in turning the other knights against Arthur, and civil war returns to the land. Arthur meets with Modred and agrees to his terms for ending the war, which include disbanding the Round Table. When one of Arthur's men draws his sword to kill a snake, however, the battle cry is sounded.
Arthur is mortally wounded, and Lancelot returns from exile to be at his side. With his dying breath, Arthur commands Lancelot to destroy Modred and give Guinevere his love and forgiveness. Lancelot fulfills Arthur's dying wish to hurl Excalibur into a lake. He calls on Guinevere at the convent and conveys Arthur's message, then finally kills Modred after a fierce one-on-one battle.
Lancelot meets Percival at the Round Table and weeps, blaming himself for the noble fellowship's demise. Percival receives another holy vision of the Grail and hears a divine voice telling him that Lancelot's son Galahad will be a worthy knight, and that Lancelot is forgiven and will now know peace.
The film had some sequences filmed near Tintagel Castle with local people as extras. Many outdoor scenes were shot at Powerscourt Estate, in Ireland. Most of the indoor filming was at MGM British Studios, Borehamwood.
George Sanders was originally cast as Modred but fell ill prior to shooting and was replaced by Stanley Baker, who had just made an impression in The Cruel Sea (1953).
According to MGM records, the film earned $4,518,000 in the US and Canada and $3,578,000 elsewhere, resulting in a profit of $1,641,000.
In Susan Aronstein's scholarly article entitled, "Hollywood Knights: Arthurian Cinema and the Politics of Nostalgia", she states, "MGM's The Knights of the Round Table was conceived and designed for box-office success; in many ways its use of Arthurian legend was a means to an end." Rotten Tomatoes, a review aggregator, gives Knights of the Round Table reports that 80% of five surveyed critics gave the film a positive review; the average rating was 6.2/10.
Moreover, Knights of the Round Table has received mixed reviews from the majority of critics. The New York Times' Bosley Crowther found Knights of the Round Table to be a refreshing, enjoyable film that resembled "a spectacular, richly costumed Western film", stating that the new CinemaScope technology brought the film to life. Decent Films Guide reviewer Steven D. Greydanus gave the film a "B", stating, "a solid adaptation of the King Arthur legend, Knights of the Round Table benefits from its colorful pageantry and strongly Christian milieu, including a royal Catholic wedding and a transcendent moment of revelation involving the Holy Grail."
Knights of the Round Table was nominated for two Academy Awards for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color (Alfred Junge, Hans Peters, John Jarvis) and Sound recording (A. W. Watkins). It was also nominated for the Grand Prix at the 1954 Cannes Film Festival.Dell Four Color #540 (March 1954)